I keep thinking about a young lady named Rebecca.
Rebecca was being interviewed in a short video at the beginning of a presentation at an event last week at Stanford University. The folks at the Knight Fellowship had teamed up with the Stanford Design School to explore cutting-edge future scenarios of journalism, and were staging a competition among three teams. Each team was to come up with one potential “next big thing” in media, to make a prototype, and then to present it to a panel of three judges. I was one of those judges.
So Rebecca appeared in that video at the start of the third presentation. She was, I think, an MBA student at Stanford, obviously super-bright and media-savvy, busy, ambitious, and all the rest of it. They asked her what her home page was. It was The Economist. So far so good.
She said a few more of the things that my colleagues and I tend to hear when people first discover that we work for The Economist. You know: global, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and things along those lines. Then Rebecca visibly got bored with her own bullshit.
So how much of The Economist do you actually read? her interviewer asked her.
Hardly anything, it turns out. And now Rebecca held forth: To be honest, she really only has The Economist as her home page because, well, that’s what one does in her circles. But she feels no connection to it at all. To her, the tone is that of some robot-like genteel alien preaching to her about what she should know for the next cocktail party. (As a good sport, I made sure that I was laughing and applauding loudest in the hall, for the record. Which was hard, because the hall suddenly seemed full of Rebeccas.)
Alright, continued the interviewer in the video, in that case, where does Rebecca go (if not, apparently, to her own home page)? She named a few sites. But the one she seems to “depend on” most, currently, is The Sartorialist.
And isn’t there a perfect symmetry to that? Officially The Economist, but really The Sartorialist. A site run by one man who
- loves his subject–fashion in the world’s cosmopolitan cities
- takes artful and intimate pictures
- cares not a hoot about whether anybody agrees with his taste, and
- is rewarded by a growing and steady following (largely from the same demographic as The Economist‘s) for precisely that authenticity.
On The Sartorialist site, Rebecca feels at home and intimate. On our site, she feels like a guest in some snobby show room, feeling (metaphorically) that she has to hold her pee until she finds a place where she is more comfortable asking for the bathroom.
So that’s what I’m thinking about. Here we are at The Economist–having powwows about the future, basking in our no-bylines eccentricities–while the Rebeccas out there politely keep us as their homepage, then bugger off to some other place that “gets” it. We would be foolish, and soulless, not to pay attention to Rebecca.